Sunday, December 9, 2018

Self-Interview on Venezuela and Socialism

     1Q: What is the definition of socialism? Is it a political system, or an economic system? Does socialism always lead to communism?

     1A: Socialism is social ownership, or worker control, of the means of production. The means of production include factories, farms, and workplaces. Some socialists may also want to socialize land, and/or railroads, energy, or other utilities. Marx, Lenin, and Khrushchev wanted socialism to lead to communism, but some socialists are more reformist and gradualist, and don't expect communism to come to America. Socialists oppose the personal and private ownership of things that make more sense to own collectively, namely, things that are occupied and used collectively, like housing, workplaces, public utilities, common lands, etc..

     2Q. People say that Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea are the best examples of communist countries. Do you think that is true?

     2A: Cuba, China, Vietnam, and Laos all have markets, so they are not communist (by most accepted definitions of communism). They may have the appearance of communist countries because they are governed by communist parties, or because they have autocracy or one-party rule. But autocracy is not a mandatory feature of communism. Also, if true communism is anarchistic (as anarcho-communists believe), then one-party rule, and political nations in the first place, would logically have nothing to do with communism.
     Most of those countries I would describe as some of the best recent examples of authoritarian communism (a little less so Cuba). China certainly doesn't represent the free communism that Karl Marx envisioned (much less the idea that it would be worldwide, and empower the individual).

     3Q. Are there any countries left in the world that are still socialist? And are there any examples of successful socialist societies, either now or in the past? Are any European countries fully socialist?

     3A: The “Eurosocialist” countries in Europe are really closer to neoliberalism and democratic socialism than they are to full socialism. Countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands are a lot like the United States: they're countries with regulated markets and a robust social safety net. Calling those countries socialist is like calling F.D.R. a socialist, it's an exaggeration.
     Socialist societies have existed, and do exist now, but they are usually short-lived. Sometimes they're destroyed by outside forces, sometimes they became tyrannical and had to be overthrown. Examples include Catalonia, Aragon, and the Mondragon cooperative in 1930s Spain, anarchist Ukraine in the 1930s, and the Paris Communes of 1848 and 1871. The Mondragon cooperative still exists today, and so does Rojava in Kurdistan.
     By the way, I would call Iceland one of the freest countries that exists, and I would also describe it as one of the best examples of both a free socialist and libertarian society.

     4Q. Critics of socialism often say that socialists just want to be lazy, not work, accept handouts, and “steal other people's money” by redistributing the wealth. Do you think that is an accurate description of socialism?

     4A: I think this is a description of the Democratic Party platform, intended to criticize it, and also used as a criticism of socialism, which has some similarities but is not exactly the same thing. The idea that socialists want to steal people's money is not true; it is wealth and opportunity that they want to redistribute, not money.
     Most socialists, communists, and anarchists don't even like the idea of money or currency in the first place, and want to get rid of it. Most socialists would agree that whether our children live or die from an illness should not depend on how much we work for government-printed pieces of paper, stamped with arbitrary values, covered in toxic processing chemicals.
     Socialists and Democrats do both want social welfare, and government assistance, but only the socialists realize in full that the problem is deeper than satisfying our temporary needs, and handouts like Food Stamps are just a temporary solution. What needs to happen is that ordinary people need more opportunities to acquire skills and education, and artificial privilege erected by law with the help of taxpayer dollars needs to be eliminated if we're going to claim that we have a free market and a free, meritocratic society.
     The people in Venezuela are not poor because they lack money; in fact, they have so much money that they don't know what to do with it, because of hyperinflation. They're poor because they lack resources; food, medications, adequate shelter, and other things we need to survive. Socialists understand that if you put too many obstacles - like hard work, and requirements to use money and currency, and pay onerous taxes, and follow overly stringent regulations - between people who are trying to support their families, and the things they need to do in order to do that, then the streets eventually fill up with starving people, sick people, and corpses.
     A society that considers bodies of sick people piling up in the streets "not a problem" or "not my problem" cannot rightfully be called a society.

     5Q. Is the Democratic Party socialist? If not, is anyone in the Democratic Party a socialist? Who are the most socialist-leaning people in American public office today?

     5A: Hillary Clinton is not “far-left”, and neither is Nancy Pelosi. They've both affirmed their commitment to capitalism over socialism. They're two of the most pro- Wall Street Democrats, and they've been used to making deals with Republicans, and corporate lobbyists who pay both sides, for a long long time.
     I think Maxine Waters wants people to think she is a socialist, but I doubt she really is one. Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I think, are the best examples of socialist-leaning politicians in office today.

     6Q. What is the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and why do some people think it is socialist?

     6A: The Congressional Progressive Caucus is what's called an ideological congressional member organization (C.M.O.). Basically it's a faction of the Democratic Party. Other factions of the Democrats include the New Democrats, the Blue Dogs, and the Populists, just like the Republicans have the Tea Party Caucus, and several other groups.
     The Congressional Progressive Caucus has for a long time been cited by people on the far right as one of the top groups infiltrating American politics to promote socialism and communism. I understand why they would think that, since the Progressives are the farthest-left faction in the Democratic Party, but Progressive Democrats are not likely to cut off their association with neoliberal Democrats like Clinton and Pelosi until the membership of the Republican Party plummets significantly.
     Progressives would choose a free communist society if they could, and if it were easy, but they are gradualists and reformists, unlike social anarchists and anarcho-communists, so they insist on reform through elections, and that's why they compromise with pro- Wall Street Democrats so much, and, in the eyes of some, sell out their base (working families and the urban poor).

     7Q. What is the difference between a Democrat, a socialist, and a “democratic socialist”? Has America ever had a socialist leader? Were F.D.R., or Teddy Roosevelt, or any other presidents, socialist, or inspired by socialism?

     7A: An American Democratic partisan is not quite a full “one man, one vote” small-”D” democrat. On one hand, American Democrats are steeped in the tradition of American liberal-conservatism, and democratic republicanism. But on the other hand, modern Democrats stray away from the tradition of a liberal society and a limited government, which was the party's platform in the two decades after Reconstruction ended.
     The question surrounding democracy in American government is, fundamentally, “Whose property are we democratically voting on?” Also, “Did people give to the public pot voluntarily, and did they earn that money fairly in the first place?” Socialists know that a business is not competing fairly if it is subsidized and bailed out. But Democrats can't seem to decide how much of the economy should be up to be distributed according to a majority vote.
     The idea that the liberties in the Bill of Rights would ever be put up for a public vote frightens conservatives, libertarians, and even some progressives and nationalists. That is why, in my opinion, it is unlikely that real socialism could take root in America (or, at least, without a revolution), and that's why a lot of people are afraid of it. It would mean a dramatic change in how politics, the economy, and society are run.
     “Democratic socialist” is the term we use to describe people like F.D.R., and Norman Thomas (who inspired him), people who wanted American democracy with socialist influences. The term “democratic socialist” is distinct from “social democrat”, which was a term used to describe German communists in parliament in the early 20th century. Personally, I think it would make more sense if the terms were flipped.

     8Q. Is Venezuela currently socialist? Did they achieve socialism under Chavez? Was the current crisis in Venezuela caused by socialism, or by something else?

     8A: Venezuela is not quite socialist, because it still has billionaires and private ownership. But it's almost socialist. They were closer to socialism, and more prosperous, under Hugo Chavez.
     Critics of the Venezuelan system arguing that nationalizing oil reserves is automatically socialist, but it's only socialist if the profits are reinvested to benefit the people. And that's what Chavez did – tied oil profits to a citizens' fund - until late in his presidency the value of oil went down, and thus the Venezuelan economy tanked. Tying oil profits to a citizens' dividend, or sovereign wealth fund or permanent fund, is something that's also been tried by Alaska, Norway, and Libya.
     It's true that the country did spend a lot on social welfare when they thought the oil-based economy would continue to succeed. But it did not help that the country was burdened with some 7 million Colombian refugees due to the civil war several decades prior. It also didn't help that, in 2002, the U.S. orchestrated a coup wherein Chavez was kidnapped, and then released and restored to power after two days, after a right-wing opposition backed and funded from Washington, D.C. briefly took control.
     State spending directed towards attempts to fight poverty, which could be described as "socialist", is not the only economic system that's to blame for Venezuela's problems. The profit motive of international capitalist sellers of food, toilet paper, and other necessities, is also partially to blame.
     Some who analyze the situation in Venezuela believe that the country's middle and upper classes' demand for a wider variety of products in stores, has been used to portray the food shortages as worse than they actually are (not that they aren't extremely problematic), and that ensuring a wide variety of foods is not as important as delivering large amounts of staples in order to keep people sufficiently well fed. Big business and media in the country, naturally, benefit from broadcasting demands for their own products, so that explanation seems to hold up to scrutiny, especially considering how problematic intellectual property can be in facilitating free, open, and low-cost international trade.
     Additionally, many Latin American countries, Honduras included, have been plagued with drugs, and the C.I.A. has not only undermined regimes all over Latin America, it has traded drugs for weapons in the course of arming all kinds of rebel groups in order to achieve those ends. Also, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuela in 2014 and 2018, after U.S.-Venezuelan relations soured (following Chavez's apparent embrace of Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein over George W. Bush, and Venezuela's failure to cooperate enough to fight terrorism in the eyes of the United States).
     So nationalization of oil, civil war, U.S. military interference and economic sanctions, refusal of police to fight violent drug gangs, price controls on food that foreign food sellers have refused to accommodate, and poor prioritization of food needs - as well as poor maintenance of the means of oil extraction - have all been significant causes of Venezuela's problems.
     American "economic imperialism", with the goal of slowing the development of the "resource-cursed" Venezuela (with its huge reserves of oil in the North, the price of which collapsed 70% in 2014, the year after Chavez died) - and a sense of legal entitlement to future profits from sales of consumer goods and everyday needs - are much more responsible for Venezuela's current problems than "socialism" (which, again, means worker control, ownership, or management of the means of production; workplaces, factories, large machines, farms, and maybe other things). There will not be full socialism in Venezuela until no workplace or energy company is owned by a private owner. 
     If Venezuela pursues more disciplined, motivated worker control over energy utilities, becomes successful at ensuring fair health and safety standards at oil extraction facilities, and expands oil refining in its own country, then it will be on the road to energy independence - and with it, economic and political independence - and it will also prove to the world that a socialist economy can be responsible, clean, and self-sufficient. Unfortunately, that will only piss America off (until it finds itself reasonable leadership who don't want to subjugate Venezuela's interests to their own).
     It could be argued that Venezuela's unrestrained social welfare spending in the face of massive temporary profits reflects a socialist desire to spend more in the short-term and overlook long-term problems. But it can also be argued that capitalism is more concerned about short-term gains than socialism, because capitalism has the reputation of prioritizing short-term profits over human lives. To any person with a conscience, the needs of Venezuela to move its most vulnerable citizens out of dire poverty and into acceptable housing, ought to outweigh the needs of Western commodities traders to acquire secondary homes for themselves.

     9Q. What is the difference between libertarian socialism and authoritarian socialism, and what are some examples of how their economic systems differ from each other? Is Venezuela libertarian-socialist or authoritarian-socialist? Would you describe Hugo Chavez or Nicolas Maduro as autocrats or dictators, or as men of the people?

     9A: Maduro is certainly having a hard time convincing his people that he is one of them, and worthy of Chavez's legacy. Some believe that Maduro displays more autocratic, authoritarian-socialist tendencies than Chavez, whom is viewed as more dedicated to freedom and equality. Or maybe it just appears that way, because the economy was so much more successful under Chavez.
     Maduro has also made attempts to replace the national legislature, and fill the supreme court with people who support him. But in Maduro's defense, he did that in response to the United Socialist Party's December 2015 electoral loss to an opposition made up of many of the same elements as the coup that ousted his predecessor Chavez in 2002 (with the help of the C.I.A.). Carmona, the president installed for two days during that coup, made the same moves that Maduro made some 14 years later: replace the national legislature with a new one, and pack the supreme court.
     Authoritarian socialists use autocracy, centralization of decision-making power, single party rule, price controls, rationing, and quota systems; while libertarian socialists use mutual aid, direct action, voluntary exchange. They also use radical reclamation of stolen property; also called appropriation, or re-appropriation. Re-appropriation is distinct from expropriation, the term Chavez used to justify nationalizing resources in the name of socialism and populism.
     Most libertarian socialists want to avoid expropriation, and are instead focused on achieving both freedom and equality through action that evades the state and tries to make it unnecessary. Authoritarian socialists, on the other hand, believe that freedom is often a threat to equality, and that, therefore, order is necessary to ensure equality. I would recommend that direct food aid continue in Venezuelan society, with or without the government's assistance.

     10Q. Do you think America could ever become socialist? If so, what would it look like? Is there any risk that if America tried socialism, it would end up poor like Venezuela? Why or why not?

     10A: I think the most likely way America could become socialist, at this point, is if Bernie Sanders got elected president, and appointed a cabinet with some more establishment-type Democrats but at least half “democratic socialists” who think more like him.
     But I don't see America approaching real socialism until at least the second term of the presidency of a socialist-leaning politician like Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, or Sherrod Brown, and at that, only after significant changes are made to labor law (such as the repeal of most or all of the Taft-Hartley Act, which severely limits the ability to engage in meaningful, coordinated strikes and boycotts).
     There's an outside chance that socialist and communist parties in the U.S. - like Community Party U.S.A., Socialist Equality Party, Socialist Workers' Party, and the Party of Socialism and Liberation - may become more popular, and caucus with the Democrats, and grow the Democrats' coalition to the point where it is unstoppable and stays in the majority, and becomes virtually a single-party-rule system.
     I don't think there's any real risk that America would become anywhere near as poor as Venezuela is right now if it tried socialism. Marx made it clear that the countries where it would be easiest and most practical to achieve socialism are in the more industrialized nations, and the wealthier ones (like America), not the poorer, less industrialized ones (like Venezuela).
     America overproduces all sorts of things: cars, junk food, toys, consumer goods. So why should it be so difficult to afford to buy anything in this country? I think it's because of brand names, bad patent laws, trade subsidies, and protection of “private” property by public police. Socialists understand that violence, and the legal enforcement of the right to profit more and more each year off of one's private property, are the most important thing backing the value of those products, and also the value of our currency.
     There is more than enough to go around in this country, it's just not being distributed right. Take food for example; the U.S. throws away between a third and half of the food it produces every year. Food pantries are full of bread and other things they can't get rid of. The show Extreme Couponing shows us that using coupons right can reduce the price of food by 99%. But even when free food is available, in abundance, people don't always have easy access to it, and the law may require it to be thrown away before it goes bad. Which causes prices to increase.
     We can't afford it, so it goes bad, so they throw it away, so we can't afford it more. Maybe if you send it to us for free, it'll get to us before it spoils! How is mass-produced junk food so expensive, when you couldn't pay me to eat most of it!? You don't need to be a socialist to admit that something's not right here. The problem is that we're valuing obeying the law, and protecting the property and brand of the food producers, over our families' needs to eat.

     11Q. Some people believe that socialism, and free markets or capitalism on the other hand, are incompatible. Do you agree, and why or why not?

     11A: Socialists and communists would like a marketless society if they could have it, because most of them believe that markets, trade, currency, and money are not, and should not be, necessary in a just world.
     But it is not necessary to abolish markets in order to achieve socialism or communism; in fact, there is a proposed economic system called market socialism, in which markets still exist, but what's being bought and sold on the markets would mostly be cooperatively or socially owned, rather than privately owned. Mutualism is a similar system.
     “Market communism” exists too; this is a term that's been applied to the economic system used by Deng Xiaoping in China from the late 70s to the mid-1980s. China opened its markets to foreign investors, and as a result, the largely state-owned, socialized economy, became more balanced against other types of property ownership (private and personal).
     Unfortunately, Deng's regime ended with the Tiananmen Square Massacre, because Deng's regime was not prepared to face the consequences of more economic openness and cultural openness to the West. The people started to demand much more freedom than Deng's regime was willing to accommodate, and China started drifting back towards authoritarian communism, away from a vision of socialism geared towards freedom.

     12Q. Critics of “socialized medicine” warn of rationing and long lines in places like Canada and the U.K.. Do you believe that adopting a socialized, non-profit, or universal health care system in America would improve the state of health in the U.S.? Why or why not?

     12A: That all depends on what "socialized medicine" really means, and whether “universal health care” means universal care or universal insurance. I think the importance of insurance is being overstated, and the importance of health care, and access to health technologies and medications, is overshadowed.
     It would help to get the profit motive out of health insurance, but this issue should not be discussed without also addressing the questions: “Why did we ever repeal the law that prohibited health insurance companies from operating on a for-profit basis in the first place?”, and “Why would a health insurance company agree to cover for a disease that a person already has, when they know they're going to lose that bet?”
     As a member of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus of the Libertarian Party, I'm inspired by both socialist and free-market libertarian ideas. People who study both fields, understand that it's not only the socialization of risks that private owners take that's the problem, it's also a problem that people are not allowed the freedom or opportunity to compete against established producers, and provide better products for better prices and/or better qualities (without being accused of trying to corner the market, or push others out of competition).
     New technologies in pharmaceuticals, and new developments in the way issuers structure health insurance policies, mean that the health industry is, by no means, exempt from those economic lessons. I oppose the individual insurance mandate, and I would support a public option, but I wouldn't ban for-profit health insurance. But people shouldn't assume that banning for-profit health insurance is the best way to achieve positive change in health policy; the main problem isn't that for-profit insurance isn't banned, it's that not-for-profit health insurance is discouraged by the government because the government can't find a way to justify taxing it.
     I would expect that a truly socialist health care system would be managed by a board comprised of doctors, nurses, other health care employees, and medical scientists, in order to fit the “worker control and management” model traditionally associated with socialism. I would want to make sure that patients - the consumers of medications – are also represented, even though they are not hospital workers. Including patients on a board of managers would make a hospital into a consumer-cooperative, instead of a cooperative enterprise.

     13Q. Why did you decide to call your second collection of essays “Soft Communism for 90's Kids”?
     13A: Because I am a 90's kid; I was born in 1987. I was four when the Soviet Union collapsed, so as a result, I didn't grow up being taught to be afraid of the Russians or of communism.
     I was 14 when 9/11 happened, and 20 when the financial crisis of 2007 hit. I've seen a police state steadily growing in my country, and I know we have troops in 4 out of 5 countries around the globe. I honestly have more critical things to say about my own country than I do about our rivals in Moscow. In Virginia, you can get a longer sentence for protesting the government on the wrong section of a public sidewalk, than you can for committing murder. In my opinion, the American police state makes the U.S.S.R. look like they weren't even trying.
     I called my book “Soft Communism for 90's Kids” because people in my age group are not afraid of socialism, the left wing, progressive politics, or anarchism. I wrote the book to inform people about changes to labor law in Wisconsin, my criticism of federal labor laws like the Wagner Act and Taft-Hartley, and to introduce the economic systems of Georgism and Mutualism in order to show that there is a bridge between American libertarianism and the radical left after all.

     14Q. What are the names of some of the articles you've written about socialism and labor law?

     14A: Articles I've written about socialism and labor law include “What Liberals and Conservatives Both Get Wrong About Socialism”, “Janus Decision Reveals Two-Faced Nature of Collective Bargaining Law”, “Majority Unionism, Compulsory Unionism, and Compulsory Voting Hurt Workers”, and “Wisconsin and Collective Bargaining: My Journey on Labor Policy”.
     You can read them on my blog, the Aquarian Agrarian, at

Questions Written on December 8th, 2018
Answers Written on December 9th, 2018
Published on December 9th, 2018
Edited and Expanded on December 10th, 11th, and 13th, 2018